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MICHAELS V. ROBERTS! Al Michaels recited a piece of key spin. At CBS, John Roberts checked it: // link //

MICHAELS V. ROBERTS: How potent can key campaign spin-points be? How powerfully can they affect voters’ minds? Last night, misused sports fans observed the weak mind of ABC sports ace Al Michaels. Late in the game between the Pats and the Colts—a game that was played in Foxboro, Mass.—a series of swift reversals occurred. John Madden made an innocuous remark. And his half-witted partner knew what to do. He knew he should make a dumb comment:
MADDEN (9/9/04): It’s what you call a flip flop!

MICHAELS: You’re in the right state for that!

In other words, Kerry’s a flip-flopper. No, there was no sign that Madden meant his remark to have political meaning. But tiny minds—like the mind of Al Michaels—are always eager to recite approved cant. Michaels knew what Rush would have said. And so he recited himself.

Somewhat comically, Michaels recited his scripted cant on the day after Bush’s latest reversal. On the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller limned the new flip:

BUMILLER (9/9/04): President Bush said on Wednesday that he wanted to give a new national intelligence director “full budgetary authority,” a sharp shift from an earlier position and an acquiescence to a major recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission.
There he went again! But we all know people like Al Michaels! On the day of Bush’s latest reversal, Michaels was eager to recite about Kerry. Kerry is a big flip-flopper, he confided to ABC’s fans.

(For the record, we seem to recall e-mails about a similar Michaels moment last month. If any reader recalls such an incident, we’d love to be refreshed.)

John Kerry is a flipper! Everyone knows that it’s the Bush campaign’s Number One Spin—and “Script Boat Veterans” like Michaels can’t wait to recite it. But just how accurate is the key claim? On Tuesday night, the impossible happened! John Roberts of CBS News actually tried to examine that question. Dan Rather introduced the segment on the CBS Evening News:

RATHER (9/7/04): Today, for the first time, President Bush used a term for Senator John Kerry that he previously left to others. He taunted Kerry directly by calling him a “flip-flopper.” As chief White House correspondent John Roberts reports, true or not, that accusation is a key part of President Bush's plan for re-election.
Roberts then spent about four hundred words evaluating this central Bush claim. To watch his brief report, just click here.

Why is any of this worth discussing? Because so few news orgs have tried to do what Roberts did this evening. Everyone has heard the key Bush claim—Kerry is a major flipper. But few news orgs have actually tried to analyze this central assertion. Incredibly, Roberts asked this about Bush’s claim: “An effective strategy, but is it accurate?” It might seem like an obvious question. But it’s a question few news orgs have asked.

For the record, it’s hard to evaluate a claim so amorphous—and you surely can’t do it in four hundred words. But despite his medium’s limitations, Roberts questioned two central points. First, he asked how much Kerry has flipped in his criticism of Bush-on-Iraq:

ROBERTS (9/7/04): But is it a flip-flop? Kerry has consistently said holding Saddam accountable was and remains the right thing to do. And he’s been just as consistent in his opposition to the way President Bush went to war.

KERRY (videotape): It's not I would have done just one thing differently in Iraq; I would have done everything differently in Iraq.

Obviously, you can’t analyze that topic in the time Roberts gave it. But have you seen any big newspaper give this matter the attention it deserves? We haven’t seen that happen. And we’ve rarely seen major news orgs report something else Roberts said:
ROBERTS (continuing directly): Kerry's other big flip-flop, according to the president: Funding for the troops in Iraq.

BUSH (videotape): He said, “Well, I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

ROBERTS: True, Kerry once voted for the $87 billion, on condition it be paid for by rescinding a portion of the president's tax cuts. When that provision failed, and seeing no new plan in the bill to win the peace, he turned thumbs down in protest.

And something you won't hear President Bush mention on the campaign trail is that he threatened to veto a version of that bill because he didn't like it. So the big problem for John Kerry, say some analysts, is not his record; it's allowing the Bush campaign to control the message. John Roberts, CBS News, Columbia, Missouri.

Omigod! Roberts reported that Bush himself threatened to veto the big spending measure! For months, Bush has trashed Kerry for opposing one form of this bill. But omigod! Bush opposed forms of the famous bill too! Why, he even said that he’d drop the V-bomb on a form of the bill he opposed! Now he says there was “nothing complicated” about this measure—a blatant misstatement, but one that Roberts didn’t have time to pursue.

No, there is no way to analyze these matters in a 400-word report. But at least Roberts was willing to try; others have sleepily stared into space. And again, this is the Bush camp’s most central claim, a fact you’d never know from the press corps’ inattention. Joe Klein got it right in July; Bush’s mocking claim about the $87 billion is “the emotional heart of his pitch” against Kerry (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/04). Now it’s September, and a few news orgs have begun to report a few tiny morsels—morsels that put Bush’s claims in some context. Incredible! On Wednesday, the New York Times told its readers that Bush said he’d veto that $87 billion (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/8/04)! And Roberts reported that fact Tuesday night! Two months after Klein’s observation, snoring, slumbering, somnolent news orgs are tossing a few tiny tidbits to voters. But no one has ever tried to sort out the full context of Bush’s key claim.

Yes, news orgs slumber as Spin Marches On—marches out of the mouth of Al Michaels. Propagandists recite, even when we watch sports. But your watch-dogs? We know the watch-dogs are all on their posts because we can hear their loud snores.

SLUMBER PARTY: A full report on Bush’s claim would surely mention his own reversals. The man who likes to call Kerry a flipper has authored a long line of flips himself:

  • Bush opposed a 9/11 Commission. Then he flipped.
  • Bush opposed a Homeland Security Department. Then he flipped.
  • Bush opposed campaign finance reform. Then he flipped.
  • Bush proposed spending $87 billion in Iraq. Then he flipped.
Regarding that $87 billion, he even said he’d veto his very own bill! Omigod! If we really want to be stupid, How big a flip-flop was that!!!

Please don’t send lists of other Bush flips. The Dub has reversed on many matters—a fact news orgs would normally mention in examining his central claim against Kerry. But today’s news orgs don’t examine; they type scripts. And even when Bush misstates his flips, they continue to slumber politely. For example, here he was on Larry King Live, turning the day into night:

KING (8/12/04): You first were opposed to the 9/11 Commission and then changed. Why?

BUSH: Not really.

KING: You weren't opposed?

BUSH: Well, I just wanted to make sure that it was done the right way. I felt like that—one of my concerns was that it would usurp the Congress' need to fully investigate. Then I recognized this was a good avenue—a good venue and a good way to really get out the facts. And they did a really good job.

Not really! In fact, Bush reversed on Friday, September 20, 2002, ending months of active opposition. Stephen Dinan reported the flip in the next day’s Washington Times. “President Bush reversed course yesterday and said he will support an independent commission to investigate security failures leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks,” he wrote. And everyone knew why Bush had flipped. Here was David Firestone in the New York Times:
FIRESTONE (9/21/02): The White House gave in today to growing Congressional demands for an independent investigation of last year's terrorist attacks, setting the stage for a comprehensive inquiry into the failures and vulnerabilities that made the hijackings possible.
Duh! Support was growing, so Bush changed course. Kathy Kiely stated the obvious in a USA Today news report:
KIELY (9/25/02): The White House dropped its opposition last week when it became clear that the Senate would approve a commission. The top-ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., were among those voting in favor.
There’s nothing illegal about such flips—pols bow to reality all the time. But when Bush told King that he hadn’t reversed, few in the press corps said Word The First. Nor have they examined his claim that Kerry is really the flipper.

Voters could actually learn a lot from examination of Bush’s Big Claim. But your press corps slumbers and stares into air. Roberts offered four hundred words—four hundred more than most new orgs have offered. The emotional heart of Bush’s pitch ain’t worth checking, your “press corps” has sleepily said.

GEORGE BUSH, STRAIGHT-SHOOTER: There’s nothing new about this, of course. But just drink in the Kafkaesque clowning described today by Paul Krugman:

KRUGMAN (9/10/04): [M]any reputable analysts think that the Bush administration routinely fakes even its short-term budget forecasts for the purposes of political spin. And the fakery in its long-term forecasts is much worse.

The administration claims to have a plan to cut the deficit in half over the next five years. But even Bruce Bartlett, a longtime tax-cut advocate, points out that “projections showing deficits falling assume that Bush's tax cuts expire on schedule.” But Mr. Bush wants those tax cuts made permanent. That is, the administration has a “plan” to reduce the deficit that depends on Congress's not passing its own legislation.

Bush’s plan will work quite well—if Congress refuses to pass Bush’s plan! This sort of thing has become so routine that only Krugman bothers to note it. Al Michaels doesn’t say squat.